Distiller Profile: Mike Swanson at Far North Spirits

Far North Spirits by Megan Sugden058

Far North’s main 500-gallon still (left) and gin-only 50-gallon still (right) // Photo by Megan Sugden

Between 2009 and 2013, Mike took classes at distilleries around the country, read, and researched as much as he could. In 2012, he quit his job at Ecolab to plan full-time. He even tracked down Dave Pickerell, longtime master distiller for Maker’s Mark and one of the nation’s preeminent craft whiskey consultants, for help. Early 2013, Mike and Cheri moved to Hallock; on Memorial Day, construction on the distillery began. By November 9, Far North Spirits was up and running.

Even with all his research and consulting, it wasn’t until Mike started actually using his own equipment—including a gorgeous, 500-gallon, eight-plate copper column still—that he was really able to learn his craft. “There are a thousand variables that affect how you do what you do,” he says. “Distillers can be a lot like farmers with crop rotation: You talk to 12 of them and you get 12 different ways to do it. And each of them is convinced that their way is the right way, but there is no one right way to do it.”

“The best advice I got was from another distiller,” Mike continues. “He said, ‘Do your own thing. Don’t chase trends. Do what inspires you, regardless of how weird it is or how well you think it will sell, if you truly do what you are inspired to do, it will do well. Trust that.’”

Far North Spirits by Megan Sugden063

Solveig Gin’s signature bottles, designed by Far North’s graphic designer Jenney Stevens in collaboration with Cheri Reese, are opaque white with gold-leaf detailing // Photo by Megan Sugden

For the last two years, Mike has been doing just that. He grows all his own rye and non-GMO corn—a blend of Minnesota 13 and a Blue River organic hybrid. He carefully sources sugar cane, botanicals, and spices for his gins and rum. He draws inspiration from nature, memories, and smells. “I like the quiet and this lifestyle; it helps with the creative process for me,” he says of being back in Hallock. “I’m not thinking about what somebody else is making. I’m thinking about what I want to express and make.”

The botanical balance for Solveig Gin, for example, was inspired by “the freshness and richness in the air” after an early June rain on the farm. For Gustav Navy Strength Gin, he was thinking about a ferry ride he’d taken through a fjord in Norway. “There was mist coming off the waterfalls, combining with the sea spray from the bow,” he says. “The mist was a heady mix of scents from the forest: birch, pine, wild flowers. I wanted to capture that.”

Mike’s spirits also stand out thanks to the rye he uses—a Canadian variety of AC Hazlet rye—and the research grant he got to learn more about it and other winter ryes. Mike chose the variety because it was well suited for Northern Minnesota’s harsh winters. The sweet vanilla notes it imparts came as a pleasant surprise.

Far North Spirits by Megan Sugden061

Roknar Rye Whiskey aging alongside the still at Far North Spirits // Photo by Megan Sugden

More than one distiller has asked him what he adds to his vodka for its smoothness and sweet undertones. They don’t immediately believe him when he says he doesn’t add anything. “It’s all in the rye,” he says. “No one’s done any research on the flavor profiles of different rye varieties, so everyone just assumed it all has that peppery, bitter flavor. But AC Hazlet proves that’s not true.”

To find out if other types of rye carry unique flavor profiles, Mike received a three-year, $188,495 research grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture in February 2015. The first-of-its-kind study will evaluate 18 varieties of winter rye grown in Minnesota for agronomics, flavor, and sensory performance. The first harvest at the three test plots, which are scattered around the state, will take place next summer. Then the grain will be sent to “as many people as possible” to be distilled into white whiskey, and taste-tested to see if there are flavor differences. Mike’s already getting calls from distillers around the country eager to hear his results.

That attention mirrors the interest Mike’s other spirits have received. Viking Line cruise ferries in Sweden, Finland, and Estonia stock their bars with Ålander Spiced Rum. So, too, does one of New York City’s hottest restaurants, Blue Hill. Mike looks surprised and humbled when he talks about the success he’s had so far. “A great piece of advice I got was, ‘Make stuff that you love because you’re going to be spending a lot of time with it. And if you hate it, people are going to know,’” he says. “So I make stuff I really love.”

It just so happens a lot of other people love it, too.

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Ellen Burkhardt About Ellen Burkhardt

Ellen Burkhardt is a freelance writer. When she's not writing, editing, or interviewing, chances are she's on the road seeking out good food, drink, and fodder for her next story.

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